Sep 262014

Shown is an image of an olfactory glomerulus, the functional unit of odor processing within the olfactory bulb of the brain. The blue fibers represent the sensory projections from the nose to an individual oval-shaped glomerulus, which is about 50 microns in diameter. It is one of approximately 1,000 different specific glomeruli in each olfactory bulb. Each glomerulus is specific for a different odorant receptor. Dias and Ressler showed that pairing an odor with a shock leads to an increased number of odor-specific cells in the nose and size of the odor-specific glomerulus in the adult mouse, which then persists for at least two generations through inheritance. Credit: Kerry Ressler

Shown is an image of an olfactory glomerulus, the functional unit of odor processing within the olfactory bulb of the brain. The blue fibers represent the sensory projections from the nose to an individual oval-shaped glomerulus, which is about 50 microns in diameter. It is one of approximately 1,000 different specific glomeruli in each olfactory bulb. Each glomerulus is specific for a different odorant receptor. Dias and Ressler showed that pairing an odor with a shock leads to an increased number of odor-specific cells in the nose and size of the odor-specific glomerulus in the adult mouse, which then persists for at least two generations through inheritance.
Credit: Kerry Ressler

Trauma can scar people so indelibly that their children are affected. History provides examples of generations traumatized by war and starvation, whose children experience altered physiology.

Now researchers at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University have found an instance of animals passing on more specific information about a traumatic experience to their offspring. That information comes not through social communication, but through inheritance.

Researchers have found that when a mouse learns to become afraid of a certain odor, his or her pups will be more sensitive to that odor, even though the pups have never encountered it.

The results were published online Dec. 1, 2013 in Nature Neuroscience.

“Knowing how the experiences of parents influence their descendants helps us to understand psychiatric disorders that may have a trans-generational basis, and possibly to design therapeutic strategies,” says senior author Kerry Ressler, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory School of Medicine.

Ressler is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute-supported investigator at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University. The first author of the paper is postdoctoral fellow Brian Dias, PhD.

Dias and Ressler trained mice to become afraid of an odor, by pairing exposure to the odor with a mild electric shock. They then measured how much the animal startled in response to a loud noise at baseline, and in conjunction with presentation of the odor.

Surprisingly, they found that the naïve adult offspring of the sensitized mice also startled more in response to the particular odor that one parent had learned to fear. In addition, they were more able to detect small amounts of that particular odor. Smell-sensitized offspring were not more anxious in general; Dias found that they were not more afraid to explore the exposed areas of a maze.

Dias and Ressler took advantage of previous research on the biology of odor detection. Scientists knew that the chemical acetophenone activates a particular set of cells in the nose and a particular “odorant receptor” gene in those cells. [Acetophenone smells somewhat like cherry blossom.]

Both a father mouse who has been sensitized to a smell and his pups have more space in the smell-processing part of their brains, called the olfactory bulb, devoted to the odor to which they are sensitive (see figure).

Dias found that both mothers and fathers can pass on a learned sensitivity to an odor, although mothers can’t do it with fostered pups, showing that the sensitivity is not transmitted by social interaction. Future mothers receive their odor-shock training before (and not during) conception and pregnancy.

The inheritance takes place even if the mice are conceived by in vitro fertilization, and the sensitivity even appears in the second generation (grandchildren). This indicates that somehow, information about the experience connected with the odor is being transmitted via the sperm or eggs.

Dias discovered that the DNA from the sperm of smell-sensitized father mice is altered. This is an example of an “epigenetic” alteration: transmitted not in the letter-by-letter sequence of the DNA, but in its packaging or chemical modifications.

In mice taught to fear acetophenone, the odorant receptor gene that responds to acetophenone has a changed pattern of methylation: a chemical modification of DNA that tunes the activity of genes. However, it’s not clear whether the changes in that gene are enough to make the difference in an animal’s odor sensitivity.

“While the sequence of the gene encoding the receptor that responds to the odor is unchanged, the way that gene is regulated may be affected,” Ressler says. “There is some evidence that some of the generalized effects of diet and hormone changes, as well as trauma, can be transmitted epigenetically. The difference here is that the odor-sensitivity-learning process is affecting the nervous system – and apparently, reproductive cells too — in such a specific way.”

What the researchers don’t know yet:

  • Are these effects reversible – if sensitized parents later learn not to be afraid of an odor, will effects still be seen in their pups?
  • Does it only happen with odors? Could mice trained to be afraid of a particular sound, for example, pass on a sensitivity to that sound?
  • Do all the sperm or egg cells bear epigenetic marks conveying odor sensitivity?
  • How does information about odor exposure reach the sperm or eggs?

“We are really just scratching the surface at this point,” Dias says. “Our next goal must be to buffer descendant generations from these effects, Such interventions could form the core of a treatment to prevent the development of neuropsychiatric disorders with roots in ancestral trauma.”

Source: Emory Health Sciences

Sep 252014

Multi tasking does have an effect on our brains – but is it good or bad? MRIs show that there’s less grey matter in one area of the brains of people who multitask regularly.

Single mindedly devoting yourself to watching TV from the couch is good for you provided you don’t feel guilty about it.

New  research on emotion and people with dementia shows they feel emotions even if they don’t remember why.

We are all tempted as we get older to think that minor memory slips could be the start of some bigger problem. And it may be. Memory changes may be an early indicator of Alzheimers.

Can memories be passed from generation to generation? That’s a spooky thought but scientists have moved a step closer with epigenetic studies on worms

And while there’s a lot of talk about narcissists and their charms it turns out that humble people form better relationships and they’re more attractive to the opposite sex.

And finally – last time we mentioned that eating more fruit and vegetables was associated with lower blood pressure – now people who eat more fruit and vegetables have better mental health a new study shows.


Sep 252014

A growing body of evidence suggests that environmental stresses can cause changes in gene expression that are transmitted from parents to their offspring, making “epigenetics” a hot topic. Epigenetic modifications do not affect the DNA sequence of genes, but change how the DNA is packaged and how genes are expressed. Now, a study by scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz, shows how epigenetic memory can be passed across generations and from cell to cell during development.

The study, published September 19 in Science, focused on one well studied epigenetic modification–the methylation of a DNA packaging protein called histone H3. Methylation of a particular amino acid (lysine 27) in histone H3 is known to turn off or “repress” genes, and this epigenetic mark is found in all multicellular animals, from humans to the tiny roundworm C. elegans that was used in this study.

“There has been ongoing debate about whether the methylation mark can be passed on through cell divisions and across generations, and we’ve now shown that it is,” said corresponding author Susan Strome, a professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology at UC Santa Cruz.

Strome’s lab created worms with a mutation that knocks out the enzyme responsible for making the methylation mark, then bred them with normal worms. Using fluorescent labels, they were able to track the fates of marked and unmarked chromosomes under the microscope, from egg cells and sperm to the dividing cells of embryos after fertilization. Embryos from mutant egg cells fertilized by normal sperm had six methylated chromosomes (from the sperm) and six unmarked or “naked” chromosomes (from the egg).

As embryos develop, the cells replicate their chromosomes and divide. The researchers found that when a marked chromosome replicates, the two daughter chromosomes are both marked. But without the enzyme needed for histone methylation, the marks become progressively diluted with each cell division.

“The mark stays on the chromosomes derived from the initial chromosome that had the mark, but there’s not enough mark for both daughter chromosomes to be fully loaded,” Strome said. “So the mark is bright in a one-cell embryo, less bright after the cell divides, dimmer still in a four-cell embryo, and by about 24 to 48 cells we can’t see it anymore.”

The researchers then did the converse experiment, fertilizing normal egg cells with mutant sperm. The methylation enzyme (called PRC2) is normally present in egg cells but not in sperm, which don’t contribute much more than their chromosomes to the embryo. So the embryos in the new experiment still had six naked chromosomes (this time from the sperm) and six marked chromosomes, but now they also had the enzyme.

“Remarkably, when we watch the chromosomes through cell divisions, the marked chromosomes remain marked and stay bright, because the enzyme keeps restoring the mark, but the naked chromosomes stay naked, division after division,” Strome said. “That shows that the pattern of marks that was inherited is being transmitted through multiple cell divisions.”

Strome noted that the findings in this study of transmission of histone methylation in C. elegans have important implications in other organisms, even though different organisms use the repressive marker that was studied to regulate different genes during different aspects of development. All animals use the same enzyme to create the same methylation mark as a signal for gene repression, and her colleagues who study epigenetics in mice and humans are excited about the new findings, Strome said.

“Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance is not a solved field–it’s very much in flux,” she said. “There are dozens of potential epigenetic markers. In studies that document parent-to-child epigenetic inheritance, it’s not clear what’s being passed on, and understanding it molecularly is very complicated. We have a specific example of epigenetic memory that is passed on, and we can see it in the microscope. It’s one piece of the puzzle.”

Source: UC Santa Cruz

Sep 252014

Analyzing millions of Arabic tweets offers insights into how residents of the Middle East view the United States. (Illustration by Kyle McKernan, Office of Communications, Princeton)

Analyzing millions of Arabic tweets offers insights into how residents of the Middle East view the United States. (Illustration by Kyle McKernan, Office of Communications, Princeton)

An analysis of millions of Arabic-language tweets confirms high levels of anti-Americanism there, provides new and interesting information about attitudes in the Middle East toward particular U.S. actions, and charts a path for using Twitter to measure public sentiment in ways opinion polls cannot. 

The findings also highlight policy challenges — and opportunities — for the United States in the Middle East, said Amaney Jamal, a professor of politics at Princeton University who conducted the research with colleagues at Princeton and Harvard University.

“Can the U.S. alter the image of itself in the region, especially in this era of terrorism where groups like ISIS are mobilizing on anti-American platforms?” Jamal said. “The policy implications are serious.”

The researchers used a tool created by Boston-based social media analytics firm Crimson Hexagon to examine Arabic reaction on Twitter to major events in 2012 and 2013, including Hurricane Sandy striking the United States, the possible U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war, the firestorm over the “Innocence of Muslims video,” the Boston Marathon bombing and the removal of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

Crimson Hexagon’s analytical tool used search terms and sample tweets organized by the researchers around each event to identify and categorize all relevant tweets mentioning the U.S. from among every public posting on Twitter.

“If you want to know how people in a given society who are on Twitter are reacting to events in real time, this is a great way to find out, so long as there is no systematic censorship,” saidRobert Keohane, a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton and one of the researchers. “You get quite a reliable sense of the reaction of a certain part of the public  to these events and you can differentiate the types of reaction.”

The researchers presented a paper on the work, “Anti-Americanism or Anti-Interventionism? Evidence From the Arabic Twitter Universe,” at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in August. Along with Jamal and Keohane, the authors are David Romney, a doctoral candidate at Harvard, and Dustin Tingley, an associate professor of political economy at Harvard, who holds a Ph.D. from Princeton.

The analytics tool identified and categorized more than 2.2 million Arabic tweets around the time of the overthrow of Morsi in 2013 that mentioned the United States.

Just 3 percent of the tweets were categorized as pro-American. About 23 percent were categorized as neutral, but the rest were critical of the United States, with criticism coming from backers of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of the Egyptian military.

“No matter which side of the domestic dispute an individual was on, he or she was likely to be opposed to the United States,” the researchers wrote. “Rather than an enemy of an enemy being a friend, the U.S. is consistently cast as an enemy.”

Similarly, in analyzing tweets regarding the Syrian civil war, “97 percent of tweeters who expressed political views are antagonistic toward the United States, despite the fact that the United States opposed the Assad regime, which was also opposed by many Arab tweeters,” the researchers wrote.

In contrast, an examination of tweets in reaction to Hurricane Sandy striking the U.S. found that nearly 30 percent of Arabic tweets offering an opinion expressed concern about Americans, defended Americans or were positive toward the U.S. government’s response.

“Reactions to cases where the U.S. is influencing Middle Eastern affairs are 95 percent to 99 percent negative,” Keohane said. “Responses to American society, as in the Hurricane Sandy monitor, are much less negative.”

The results of the analysis offer important insights for the ongoing debate about whether residents of the Middle East are inherently anti-American or responding to American policies, the researchers said.

“It’s not true that these people just hate the United States,” Keohane said. “But there’s a very deep dislike of American intervention and an unwillingness to give the U.S. credit even when it is on their side. I think it’s going to be a very long road for the U.S., and the U.S. shouldn’t expect to get a huge amount of public support from the Arab world.”

To further test their ideas that perceptions of the U.S. impinging on Middle Eastern nations influenced sentiment more than perceptions of U.S. society, the researchers also examined tweets commenting on Iran’s involvement in the Middle East. Arabic tweeters were even more negative about Iran than the United States.

“Iranian society and U.S. society are very different,” Keohane said. “If the fundamental reactions were to the type of society, they might hate the U.S. and like Iran. But what the U.S. and Iran have in common is that they are powerful non-Arab countries that intervene in the Middle East.”

Henry Farrell, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said the research “represents a very important advance in showing how online media analysis can capture important — and large-scale — debate.”

The researchers say they are continuing to explore the best ways to use such Twitter data to capture public opinion, particularly in regions such as the Middle East and Africa where conducting opinion polls is especially difficult and expensive.

Source: Princeton


Sep 252014

New research by scientists at the University of Kentucky’s Sanders-Brown Center on Aging suggests that people who notice their memory is slipping may be on to something.

The research, led by Richard Kryscio, PhD, Chairman of the Department of of Biostatistics and Associate Director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the University of Kentucky, appears to confirm that self-reported memory complaints are strong predictors of clinical memory impairment later in life.

Kryscio and his group asked 531 people with an average age of 73 and free of dementia if they had noticed any changes in their memory in the prior year. The participants were also given annual memory and thinking tests for an average of 10 years. After death, participants’ brains were examined for evidence of Alzheimer’s disease.

During the study, 56 percent of the participants reported changes in their memory, at an average age of 82. The study found that participants who reported changes in their memory were nearly three times more likely to develop memory and thinking problems. About one in six participants developed dementia during the study, and 80 percent of those first reported memory changes.

“What’s notable about our study is the time it took for the transition from self-reported memory complaint to dementia or clinical impairment — about 12 years for dementia and nine years for clinical impairment — after the memory complaints began,” Kryscio said. “That suggests that there may be a significant window of opportunity for intervention before a diagnosable problem shows up.”

Kryscio points out that while these findings add to a growing body of evidence that self-reported memory complaints can be predictive of cognitive impairment later in life, there isn’t cause for immediate alarm if you can’t remember where you left your keys.

“Certainly, someone with memory issues should report it to their doctor so they can be followed. Unfortunately, however, we do not yet have preventative therapies for Alzheimer’s disease or other illnesses that cause memory problems.”

Source: University of Kentucky

Sep 252014

photodune-7937559-multitasking-xs (1)Simultaneously using mobile phones, laptops and other media devices could be changing the structure of our brains, according to new University of Sussex research.

A study published today (24 September) reveals that people who frequently use several media devices at the same time have lower grey-matter density in one particular region of the brain compared to those who use just one device occasionally.

The research supports earlier studies showing connections between high media-multitasking activity and poor attention in the face of distractions, along with emotional problems such as depression and anxiety.

But neuroscientists Kep kee Loh and Dr Ryota Kanai point out that their study reveals a link rather than causality and that a long-term study needs to be carried out to understand whether high concurrent media usage leads to changes in the brain structure, or whether those with less-dense grey matter are more attracted to media multitasking.

The researchers at the University of Sussex’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the brain structures of 75 adults, who had all answered a questionnaire regarding their use and consumption of media devices, including mobile phones and computers, as well as television and print media.

They found that, independent of individual personality traits, people who used a higher number of media devices concurrently also had smaller grey matter density in the part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the region notably responsible for cognitive and emotional control functions.

Kep kee Loh says: “Media multitasking is becoming more prevalent in our lives today and there is increasing concern about its impacts on our cognition and social-emotional well-being. Our study was the first to reveal links between media multitasking and brain structure.”

Scientists have previously demonstrated that brain structure can be altered upon prolonged exposure to novel environments and experience. The neural pathways and synapses can change based on our behaviours, environment, emotions, and can happen at the cellular level (in the case of learning and memory) or cortical re-mapping, which is how specific functions of a damaged brain region could be re-mapped to a remaining intact region.

Other studies have shown that training (such as learning to juggle, or taxi drivers learning the map of London) can increase grey-matter densities in certain parts of the brain.

“The exact mechanisms of these changes are still unclear,” says Kep kee Loh. “Although it is conceivable that individuals with small ACC are more susceptible to multitasking situations due to weaker ability in cognitive control or socio-emotional regulation, it is equally plausible that higher levels of exposure to multitasking situations leads to structural changes in the ACC. A longitudinal study is required to unambiguously determine the direction of causation.”

Source: University of Sussex

Sep 252014

watching soccerThere’s a snobbishness about relaxation time. Tell someone your hobby is watching TV and chances are they’ll look at you with derisionin a post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest. Mention meditation, reading or yoga and you’re far more likely to attract nods of approval.

And yet there is substantial evidence that time watching TV or playing video games can have a powerful restorative effect – just what many of us need after a hard day. This benefit isn’t found for everyone, and in new paper Leonard Reinecke and his collaborators propose that a key reason has to do with guilt.

The researchers think that it is people who are mentally exhausted, who are most likely to experience guilt after vegging out with a box set or video game. This is because, in their depleted state, these people see their behaviour as procrastination. This leads to the paradoxical situation in which it is the people who could most benefit from the restorative effects of lounge-based downtime who are the least likely to do so.

To test their ideas, Reinecke’s team surveyed nearly 500 people in Germany and Switzerland. Participants were recruited via a gaming website and through psychology and communication classes.  Specifically, the participants answered questions about the previous day, including how much work or study they’d done (answers ranged from half an hour to 16 hours), how depleted they felt after work or college, how much TV they’d watched or video-gaming they’d played (this averaged around two hours), whether they viewed it as procrastination, whether they felt guilty, and how recharged they felt afterwards.

The key finding is that the more depleted people felt after work (agreeing with statements like “I felt like my willpower was gone”), the more they tended to view their TV or gaming as procrastination, the more guilt they felt, and the less likely they were to say they felt restored afterwards. The same findings applied for TV or video games.

“Rather than diminishing the beneficial potential of entertaining media,” the researchers said, “we believe that the results of this study may ultimately help to optimise the well-being outcomes of entertaining media use by extending our knowledge of the mechanisms furthering and hindering media-induced recovery and general well-being.” If the researchers are correct, then if you cut yourself some slack when you watch TV after a hard day, you’re more likely feel rejuvenated afterwards.

Unfortunately, as the researchers admit in their paper, their methodological approach has several limitations. Above all, this wasn’t an experimental study (with people allocated randomly to different interventions). This means the data can be interpreted in many different ways. One alternative reading of the results is that when TV or gaming fails to have a restorative effect, this leads people to view the time as wasteful procrastination, thus causing them to feel guilty.

Source: BPS Research Digest.

Sep 252014

Jade Angelica, founder and director of Healing Moments Alzheimer’s Ministry in Dubuque, Iowa, considers caring for her mother, Jeanne, to be the most important work of her life. Jade’s mother died from Alzheimer’s in 2011. Jade is author of the book "Where Two Worlds Touch: A Spiritual Journey Through Alzheimer's Disease." Edmarie Guzman-Velez and her colleagues reference Jade’s book in their research paper, “Feelings Without Memory in Alzheimer Disease” published in the journal Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology. Photo courtesy of Jade Angelica.

Jade Angelica, founder and director of Healing Moments Alzheimer’s Ministry in Dubuque, Iowa, considers caring for her mother, Jeanne, to be the most important work of her life. Jade’s mother died from Alzheimer’s in 2011. Jade is author of the book “Where Two Worlds Touch: A Spiritual Journey Through Alzheimer’s Disease.” Edmarie Guzman-Velez and her colleagues reference Jade’s book in their research paper, “Feelings Without Memory in Alzheimer Disease” published in the journal Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology. Photo courtesy of Jade Angelica.

A new University of Iowa study further supports an inescapable message: caregivers have a profound influence—good or bad—on the emotional state of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. Patients may not remember a recent visit by a loved one or having been neglected by staff at a nursing home, but those actions can have a lasting impact on how they feel.
The findings of this study are published in the September 2014 issue of the journal Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology, and can be viewed online for free here.
UI researchers showed individuals with Alzheimer’s disease clips of sad and happy movies. The patients experienced sustained states of sadness and happiness despite not being able to remember the movies.
“This confirms that the emotional life of an Alzheimer’s patient is alive and well,” says lead author Edmarie Guzmán-Vélez, a doctoral student in clinical psychology, a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellow, and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow.
Guzmán-Vélez conducted the study with Daniel Tranel, UI professor of neurology and psychology, and Justin Feinstein, assistant professor at the University of Tulsa and the Laureate Institute for Brain Research.
Tranel and Feinstein published a paper in 2010 that predicted the importance of attending to the emotional needs of people with Alzheimer’s, which is expected to affect as many as 16 million people in the United States by 2050 and cost an estimated $1.2 trillion.
“It’s extremely important to see data that support our previous prediction,” Tranel says. “Edmarie’s research has immediate implications for how we treat patients and how we teach caregivers.”
Despite the considerable amount of research aimed at finding new treatments for Alzheimer’s, no drug has succeeded at either preventing or substantially influencing the disease’s progression. Against this foreboding backdrop, the results of this study highlight the need to develop new caregiving techniques aimed at improving the well-being and minimizing the suffering for the millions of individuals afflicted with Alzheimer’s.
For this behavioral study, Guzmán-Vélez and her colleagues invited 17 patients with Alzheimer’s disease and 17 healthy comparison participants to view 20 minutes of sad and then happy movies. These movie clips triggered the expected emotion: sorrow and tears during the sad films and laughter during the happy ones.
About five minutes after watching the movies, the researchers gave participants a memory test to see if they could recall what they had just seen. As expected, the patients with Alzheimer’s disease retained significantly less information about both the sad and happy films than the healthy people. In fact, four patients were unable to recall any factual information about the films, and one patient didn’t even remember watching any movies.
Before and after seeing the films, participants answered questions to gauge their feelings. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease reported elevated levels of either sadness or happiness for up to 30 minutes after viewing the films despite having little or no recollection of the movies.
Quite strikingly, the less the patients remembered about the films, the longer their sadness lasted. While sadness tended to last a little longer than happiness, both emotions far outlasted the memory of the films.
The fact that forgotten events can continue to exert a profound influence on a patient’s emotional life highlights the need for caregivers to avoid causing negative feelings and to try to induce positive feelings.
“Our findings should empower caregivers by showing them that their actions toward patients really do matter,” Guzmán-Vélez says. “Frequent visits and social interactions, exercise, music, dance, jokes, and serving patients their favorite foods are all simple things that can have a lasting emotional impact on a patient’s quality of life and subjective well-being.”

Source: University of Iowa

Sep 252014

Indian scientists are significantly more religious than United Kingdom scientists, according to the first cross-national study of religion and spirituality among scientists.

The U.K. and India results from Religion Among Scientists in International Context (RASIC) study were presented at the Policies and Perspectives: Implications From the Religion Among Scientists in International Context Study conference held today in London. The conference was sponsored by the Religion and Public Life Program and the Baker Institute for Public Policy. The U.K. results were also presented at the Uses and Abuses of Biology conference Sept. 22 at Cambridge University’s Faraday Institute in Cambridge, England.

The surveys and in-depth interviews with scientists revealed that while 65 percent of U.K. scientists identify as nonreligious, only 6 percent of Indian scientists identify as nonreligious. In addition, while only 12 percent of scientists in the U.K. attend religious services on a regular basis — once a month or more — 32 percent of scientists in India do.

Elaine Howard Ecklund, Rice’s Autrey Professor of Sociology and the study’s principal investigator, said the U.K. and India data are being released simultaneously because of the history between the U.K. and India. She noted that their differences are quite interesting to compare.

“India and the U.K. are at the same time deeply intertwined historically while deeply different religiously,” Ecklund said. “There is a vastly different character of religion among scientists in the U.K. than in India – potentially overturning the view that scientists are universal carriers of secularization.”

Despite the number of U.K. scientists identifying themselves as nonreligious, 49 percent of U.K. survey respondents acknowledged that there are basic truths in many religions. In addition, 11 percent of U.K. survey respondents said they do believe in God without any doubt, and another 8 percent said they believe in a higher power of some kind.

Ecklund noted that although the U.K. is known for its secularism, scientists in particular are significantly more likely to identify as not belonging to a religion than members of the general population.

“According to available data, only 50 percent of the general U.K. population responded that they did not belong to a religion, compared with 65 percent of U.K. scientists in the survey,” Ecklund said. “In addition, 47 percent of the U.K. population report never attending religious services compared with 68 percent of scientists.”

According to the India survey, 73 percent of scientists responded that there are basic truths in many religions, 27 percent said they believe in God and 38 percent expressed belief in a higher power of some kind. However, while only 4 percent of the general Indian population said they never attend religious services, 19 percent of Indian scientists said they never attend.

“Despite the high level of religiosity evident among Indian scientists when it comes to religious affiliation, we can see here that when we look at religious practices, Indian scientists are significantly more likely than the Indian general population to never participate in a religious service or ritual, even at home,” Ecklund said.

Although there appear to be striking differences in the religious views of U.K. and Indian scientists, less than half of both groups (38 percent of U.K. scientists and 18 percent of Indian scientists) perceived conflict between religion and science.

“When we interviewed Indian scientists in their offices and laboratories, many quickly made it clear that there is no reason for religion and science to be in conflict; for some Indian scientists, religious beliefs actually lead to a deeper sense of doing justice through their work as scientists,” Ecklund said. “And even many U.K. scientists who are themselves not personally religious still do not think there needs to be a conflict between religion and science.”

The U.K. survey included 1,581 scientists, representing a 50 percent response rate. The India survey included 1,763 scientists from 159 universities and/or research institutions. Both surveys also utilized population data from the World Values Survey to make comparisons with the general public. In addition, the researchers conducted nearly 200 in-depth interviews with U.K. and Indian scientists, many of these in person.

The complete study will include a survey of 22,000 biologists and physicists at different points in their careers at top universities and research institutes in the U.S., U.K., Turkey, Italy, France, India, Hong Kong and Taiwan — nations that have very different approaches to the relationship between religious and state institutions, different levels of religiosity and different levels of scientific infrastructure. Respondents were randomly selected from a sampling frame of nearly 50,000 scientists and compiled by undergraduate and graduate students at Rice University through an innovative sampling process. The study will also include qualitative interviews with 700 scientists. The entire RASIC study will be completed by the end of 2015.

Rice University’s Baker Institute Science and Technology Fellow Kirstin Matthews and C.V. Starr Transnational China Fellow Steven Lewis serve as co-principal investigators for the project. The project is funded by a grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation. A related study that is part of the research initiative is funded by the National Science Foundation and examines Ethics among Scientists in China, U.K. and U.S.


Source: Rice University

Sep 242014

Researchers at the University of Chicago have shown that after a long stay in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) only a handful of pathogenic microbe species remain behind in patients’ intestines. The team tested these remaining pathogens and discovered that some can become deadly when provoked by conditions that mimic the body’s stress response to illness.

The findings, published in mBio®, the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology, may lead to better monitoring and treatment of ICU patients who can develop a life-threatening systemic infection known as sepsis.

“I have watched patients die from sepsis—it isn’t their injuries or mechanical problems that are the problem,” says John Alverdy, a gastrointestinal surgeon and one of two senior authors on the study.

“Our hypothesis has always been that the gut microflora in these patients are very abnormal, and these could be the culprits that lead to sepsis,” he says.

The current study supports this idea. Alverdy and Olga Zaborina, a microbiologist, wanted to know what happens to the gut microbes of ICU patients, who receive repeated courses of multiple antibiotics to ward off infections.

They found that patients with stays longer than a month had only one to four types of microbes in their gut, as measured from fecal samples—compared to about 40 different types found in healthy volunteers.

Four of these patients had gut microbe communities with just two members– an infectious Candida yeast strain and a pathogenic bacterial strain, such as Enterococcus faecium or Staphylococcus aureus and other bugs associated with hospital-associated infections. Not surprisingly, almost all of the pathogenic bacteria in these patients were antibiotic resistant.

“They’ve got a lot of bad guys in there, but the presence of bad guys alone doesn’t tell you who’s going to live or die,” says Alverdy. “It’s not only which microbes are there, but how they behave when provoked by the harsh and hostile conditions of critical illness.”

To check that behavior, the team cultured microbe communities from ICU patients and tested their ability to cause harm in a laboratory model of virulence. The tiny Caenorhabditis elegans worm normally feeds on soil microbes, but when fed pathogenic microbes in the lab, the worms act as a canary-in-the-coalmine indicator of virulence. The more virulent a microbe, the more worms it kills.

Feeding the worms the yeast-plus-bacteria communities did not kill many worms, but when the bacteria were removed, the yeast alone became deadly. In some cases, simply changing the bacterial partner caused virulence. This suggests that even though the two microbes in these communities are both pathogens, they exist in a communal balance in the gut that does not always lead to virulence.

“During host stress, these two microbes suppress the virulence of each other,” says Zaborina. “But if you do something to one of them, then that can change their behavior.”

For example, the team found that adding an opioid drug to the mix—which mimics stress signals released by sick patients—could also switch behavior from a peaceful coexistence called commensalism to virulence for some microbe pairs. The team could prevent this switch to virulence by feeding the worms a molecule that created high phosphate levels in their gut.

Although the study was too small for statistical significance, there was a correlation between microbe behavior and whether a patient lived or died: two patients who were discharged had microbes that coexisted peacefully, but the three who died of sepsis had at least one sample that displayed pathogenic behavior.

The work suggests that doctors should try to find ways to minimize the excessive use of antibiotics and stabilize the microbes that do remain in ICU patients’ guts. This might be achieved by delivering phosphate or reducing the stress signals in the gut. Such efforts could keep microbes calm and non-virulent, leading to better patient outcomes.

Source: American Society for Microbiology

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